Why do some Italian-Americans say "gravy" when they mean "tomato sauce?" By Talia Felix, Assistant Editor.

Does it come from Beefsteak Tomatoes?

The first time I heard the word gravy meaning "tomato sauce," I was doing transcription work on the unedited footage of a cooking show. A fellow was demonstrating how to make a spaghetti-and-meatballs type dish, and he kept referring to the sauce as “gravy.” At some point the director stopped him and asked why he was saying that. All he could answer was that it’s what his aunt had always called it.

From time to time thereafter I would notice this use appear in a movie or TV show featuring Italian characters. I didn’t think of it too much — just one of those regional food slang terms that comes up, like grinders or “Steamed Hams.”

Many years later, I was working on something else entirely, for which I had to repeatedly watch a clip from a 1930 Max Fleischer cartoon in which a character mentions gravy in the sense of "juice dripping from cooked meat." Hearing it over and over made me consider how that’s unusual — I recognized what he was talking about, but I really almost never hear “gravy” to mean anything but a thickened sauce of broth or meat-drippings.

I went to check Etymonline’s entry to see when the terms diverged, and found that at the time there wasn’t any information at all about gravy’s sense evolution. So, having been put in charge of the site’s food entries, I figured it was my duty to add that information; and while trying to think of different senses of gravy that I would now have to look out for, I remembered the tomato sauce sense.

I did a quick look to see if there was any real scholarship on this apparently Italian-American term. Many people had looked into it, but without arriving at any serious conclusions. There was consensus that not all Italian families did this, only some. The most commonly repeated “reason” was that early Italian immigrants so desperately wanted to fit in to American society that they adopted the more American word gravy for their native sauce. Not only does this reek of false etymology (a “story” is often the hallmark that someone’s making it up, especially when emotional imagery gets tied into it) but the idea that these guys wanted to fit in by picking a word that everyone who hears it thinks is absolutely bizarre sounds like a wacky foreigner joke worthy of Long Duk Dong.

Apparently whole books have been written on the topic of tomato sauce/gravy that got nowhere in determining the origin, which seemed discouraging for finding a real answer myself, but I went in treating it like any other word and started by trying to find the earliest date for it. Initially, I wasn’t able to find anything on Google Books before 1996. That seemed to throw a wrench into any idea that it’s an old word from the first wave of 19th century Italians (I’d expect it to pop into print around mid-century at least, when the children and grandchildren of those people were becoming the published writers and cooks.) Later, by tweaking my search terms, I was able to get it down to 1978 — but that’s still pretty late. Some of the books using the word were retelling stories supposed to have taken place in the 40s or 60s but, you can’t really cite those because you don’t know if they really used the word at the time or if the author learned the word later and is retroactively applying it.

Once I had my dates, the next thing I figured was I should look at what words Italians of the 20th century might have used for actual gravy or what word might get confused with gravy (is there some Italian word that, maybe, sounds like the English word gravy?) I started just looking at the 19th and 20th century Italian-English dictionaries and found a few words that were used to translate gravy, a common one being sugo, which I knew was one of the sauces previous gravy researchers named as being the type of tomato sauce that gets called “gravy.” The word is cognate to succulent and probably means gravy in that Max Fleischer cartoon sense that got me started on all of this. There’s also a sauce called ragu, from French ragout, which is the word that pretty much replaced gravé in French.

Somewhere in the course of this I had read enough Google Books snippets about gravy recipes to know that actual meat gravy was not uncommonly served on pasta during the 20th century (Chef Boyardee — public persona of Ettore Boiardi — even briefly offered a canned version of this) and I was beginning to think it might be an extension of this practice. I had also in the course of things come upon plenty of recipes for “tomato gravy” as a true American gravy recipe flavored with tomatoes, and it seemed that conflation might be at work.

I went ahead and updated the site article to say that it was usually agreed as an Englishing of an Italian word but possibly extended from using actual gravy on food.

But still, a lot of those gravy citations were quite old, and at this point I was working with an oldest date for the slang term in the early 1990s (I think by then I’d got as far as having it tracked to an episode of The Frugal Gourmet). So I began searching for associated phrases like “Sunday Gravy,” and I not only started getting slightly older material but also noticed that these writers often mentioned that their grandparents — it was always grandparents who made this “gravy” — were from or associated with Calabria.

Since Calabria was coming up a lot, I figured it could be something particularly from there. Afterall, it is agreed one of the strange things about the gravy term is that not all Italians say it, and it seems to exist only in random pockets of American communities. I made some futile efforts at finding anything useful in Calabrese glossaries or translators. Then, I supposed I should see how Calabrians actually make tomato sauce. Maybe it’s got something obvious, like it has gravy in it, that will explain everything? Well, indeed, I was right that this was the key to unwinding the mystery.

I typed, I believe, “Calabrian Tomato Sauce Recipe” into Google and one of the top results was a YouTube video. I clicked that. It was a video shot by an American, who seemed to be living in Calabria and was on this occasion invited to help her neighbors make their year’s supply of tomato sauce. Except, what they were making wasn’t tomato sauce. It was the tomato puree that gets used for sauce. She kept calling this, in English, “tomato sauce,” and in the description she even said “There is nothing better than a pasta al sugo made with your own sauce.”

After confirming that her neighbors aren’t just weirdos and that others do this too, and that the phrase one wants to translate as “tomato sauce” indeed applies to this Calabrian stuff — I had it. This was it. It’s called gravy because the “sauce” is the tomato paste that’s used to make the gravy, so you needed that other word “gravy” to name the sauce. Ugh!

It was about 4 a.m. and I’d been pestering Doug with texts about my progress all night. At this point my only regret was I felt sure this was going to require some massive paragraph of explanation and maybe require a whole new entry just on the Italian-American slang version of gravy so that I could present all the details. But I finally went to bed, and after sleeping on it, I figured it all out as a nice concise sentence, which as of this writing reads on the site: “… by 1978, evidently from certain Italian dialects differentiating tomato puree (salsa, "sauce") from the cooked tomato sauce (sugo, translated "gravy" in many 19c. and 20c. Italian-English dictionaries, or ragu, etc.)”

I often feel weird when I solve in 2 days some linguistic mystery that people have devoted their whole academic career to solving. Still, I know the reason I can do it is because I have resources through the internet that were not available even 15 years ago. If I’d had to solve this using only books at my local library, even one of the university libraries, I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere. I’d have had to look through a card catalogue for books someone guessed might have useful information about “Italian cookery” or “Italian-American slang,” 99% of which would have nothing useful at all and the remaining 1% would probably just repeat information I already had.

Databases like Google Books allow every single book that has the word gravy anywhere in it, to appear; such that I was able to find isolated paragraphs in books I’d probably not have chosen to read otherwise, that mention “Calabrian grandma’s Sunday gravy” one time in the whole text otherwise about Jehovah’s Witnesses that no card catalogue would have presented it to me as a lead. You want to bet if I had looked in cookbooks for Calabrian sauce recipes, the person compiling the cookbook would have already known English speakers looking for sauce want the al sugo recipe, and would have provided only that? It required the literal-mindedness of a computer to give me the right answer.

I also perceived that many of the people who had looked into the gravy question before me seemed to be treating it as more of an anthropological project — interviewing Italian families and asking them about it, which isn’t a very reliable way to get information about a word. (Compare the cooking show fellow I once transcribed, answering the director that it’s just “what his aunt always said.” This is the sort of non-answer one gets.) While it can be limiting, especially with slang, to only use documented material, this is why when tracing a word you have use just that. People don’t know. People have preconceived ideas about what it should be. People want it to be an entertaining story instead of a nice plain “it’s translating how you have to say it in the source language.”

Anyway, I didn’t get to bask long in the satisfaction of my discovery, because the whole etymology of the English gravy itself looks funny to me, and represents the pinnacle of 1880s scholarship, so I’m trying to get that sorted out now.

[Update 02/25/2023: the site's gravy article has been updated with surprising new findings.]


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